HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Remembering Ethel Smith, K4LMB (SK)

Wireless women in amateur radio have been turning heads and sending quick dit-dit-dots since as early as 1910 with a wicked-smart list of achievements snugged up under their collective belt. One such trailblazer, Ethel Smith,  K4LMB (SK), enjoyed more than 60 years in the hobby, helped found and lead the Young Ladies Radio League (YLRL), worked with Auto-Call Magazine and QCWA Journal, and is a member of the CQ Amateur Radio Hall of Fame—along with participating in a slew of other ham-related activities.

Smith became interested in wireless when she was still a youngster and spent her early adulthood working as an electronics engineering aide at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. She examined photos of foreign intelligence assets in this role and used the Naval Reserve Electronic Service (part of the Military Amateur Radio System) for communication.

Around this time, Smith also wrote a letter to QST magazine urging ham women to organize, and it was this call-to-action at the point of a pen that would lead to the YLRL’s founding in 1939 with Smith as president. Dedicated to the advancement of women in amateur radio, Ethel Smith’s YLRL celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2019 and still serves as a fantastic resource for female operators today. Learn more about activities, how to join, how it began, and how the catchy moniker “young ladies” caught on here.

Smith would also go on to help establish the Foundation for Amateur Radio (FAR) in 1957. During related activities she met a fellow ham who “wowed” her with his shared propensity for all things amateur radio named John “Tex” De Bardeleben (W4TE/ex-W3CN). Bardeleben worked for the FCC and Smith was so smitten with his operator knowhow that she agreed to marry him. The amateur radio-inspired couple moved to Virginia to set up a permanent “shack,” and it was there that Smith served as the Virginia SEC (1966-1969) and later as ARRL assistant director for four different Roanoke Division directors.

And Smith didn’t stop there. She served as the executive secretary/general manager of the QCWA and was later elected to the QCWA Board of Directors. Not quite satisfied with her growing list of accomplishments, Smith decided to add a few more to include:

  • Ham of the Year
  • Washington, D.C. Mobile Radio Club (1965)
  • ARRL Roanoke Division Service Award (1972)
  • Dayton Hamvention Special Achievement Award (1984)
  • QCWA Roll of Honor (1987)
  • Radio Club of America Fellow (1988)
  • Foundation for Amateur Radio Ham of the Year (1993)

Often found operating on 80 or 40 meters, Smith told the QCWA Journal during her 60th anniversary in the hobby: “Amateur Radio is still the main focus of my life. It has brought me all the good things that ever happened to me. It gave me a challenging and rewarding career. It gave me a wonderful husband and the greatest collection of friends in the world. I owe more to Amateur Radio than I can ever possibly repay.” While we, of course, are probably biased, we think it likely that Smith has likewise proved indispensable to the amateur radio community.

Smith remained active in the hobby well into her later years. She retired from her role as editor of the QCWA Bulletin after an impressive 40 years of involvement. The post to fill her position is below:



After 40 years of working on the Auto-Call Magazine K4LMB has
           decided to retire.

In those years, the magazine has grown from eight to 64 pages.

And the current editor has aged from 36 to 76 years.

She needs a rest.

Pay is poor, hours are long, and the psychological rewards are GREAT.

Bids are now being accepted by the Foundation.

Smith would pass away only three short years later at the age of 79. Former ARRL officer, David Sumner, K1ZZ, remembers her fondly, noting that Smith “never stopped contributing, learning, and growing.” He muses, “I don’t think it ever would have occurred to her that she should.” A lesson of value to all of us and one that lives on tangibly in scholarships provided by the YLRL, which include:

  • Ethel Smith, K4LMB, Memorial Scholarship ($2,000 award)
  • Mary Lou Brown, NM7N, Memorial Scholarship ($2,000 award)
  • Martha “Marte” Wessel, K0EPE, Memorial Scholarship ($1,000 award)

While deadlines for all three have passed for the 2022 scholarship year, keep your eyes peeled for information on the YLRL website to submit an application for the 2023 school year early next year.

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